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Tech today: Popular kids, geeks, bitchfests... Welcome back to HIGH SCHOOL, nerds

Don't be fooled. Following the herd STILL gets you nowhere

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Get the herd leader and the rest will blindly follow

In many cases these thought influencers are close friends with one another. So close, in fact, that capturing the Alpha of the group ensures that the rest of the group will ultimately believe – and then parrot back – "the message". Friends defend friends and have a tendency to believe what their friends believe.

This isn't exactly shocking news: your friends have more exposure to you and more opportunity to convince you of their side. This is the entire basis of political and corporate lobbying. Even were you to strip out all the bribes and pork from politics or marketing, simply getting more time to make your case gives you an unfair advantage over any potential competition. It's human nature.

In marketing this is a massive first mover advantage and increasingly an advantage that only the best-capitalised companies can achieve. Not all thought influencers are equal: you need to purchase key ones outright in order to capture the most influential cliques in your industry.

High school all over again

If you purchase the right cliques of people you can control the message across an entire industry. You'll know when this has happened because the loudest and brashest of the companies in a given niche won't address technical arguments or discuss real-world problems with their technology or implementation.

Any attempt by "the nerds" to point out flaws in the message of "the popular kids" will be met not with open discussion of the issues. Instead it will be met with name calling, group derision, and other high school antics.

If the marketers have done their jobs well than they will have captured so many of these popular cliques that any attempt by a third-party blogger, analyst or a competitor proper will simply be shouted down. You will likely even see them lob accusations of bullying at those trying to raise purely technical arguments; anything to keep the negativity focused on the individuals and prevent discussion of the product and its applications.

Ostracisation as a Service

The goal behind this kind of marketing is quite simply to tap into the human desire to belong and to use that against your customers. Not only do people want to belong, they desperately want to belong to whichever social group contains the local Alpha or Alphas. We see the results of this in everything from voting patterns to consumer purchasing habits.

When you are dealing with an emerging niche, the majority of a given industry simply won't have the experience or knowledge to have educated discussions about the technical details. They will turn to the opinions of the social Alphas and adopt them instead.

When the Alphas stop dealing with the technical issues and deal only with perception or social standing then the meritocracy is lost and IT has degenerated into nothing more "pure" than the selling of handbags or perfume.

There are ways to tell when you are being manipulated like this. The most obvious is when you see Goliath – or "thought influencers" who are part of Goliath's social group – mewling plaintively that "David is a bully".

Attempting to use social ostracisation as a weapon is the surest sign that Goliath's got nothing. Worse, it could be that Goliath's got something, but David's got a damned good point and something quite a bit better to sell.

This is the dark side of modern marketing. It is social and emotional and even those who aren't directly bought-and-paid-for can easily be part of a damning end-run around the meritocracy.

Keeping it clean

Everyone has their own take on how to keep their noses clean. Some champion the idea that one should "only ever say positive things"; others champion purity through financial isolation.

I've batted this around quite a bit to find my own position on the matter and ultimately ended up right back at the beginning: biting the hand that feeds IT.

While the social pressure on Canadians to be polite above all is immense, I don't believe that's how I best serve my clients or my readers. The truth will out by asking the hard questions, even if doing so is "impolite". Level criticism where it's due. Ask the things they obviously don't want you to ask. Dispense praise where praise has been earned. Focus on the tech, and on the reason we buy technology in the first place: to solve problems and make our lives easier.

As the IT industry wakes up to how social media can be used for peer pressure and social ostracisation, the importance of critical thinking trebles. Be wary of brand tribalism. Constantly reevaluate both yourself and your idols for bias.

Most importantly, if a question makes you uncomfortable, don't lash out against it: engage it. It is when we allow ourselves the ease only of comfortable questions, comfortable thought and comfortable associations that our objectivity – and the meritocracy we joined IT be a part of – is lost. ®

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